Featured post

Sofa Portraits now available for pre-order

  1.          Sofa Portraits is now available for pre-order from my website (orders will deliver in October/November)   The pric...

Sunday, 27 October 2019

An English Journey

I went up to Northumberland last weekend, to the strange town of Allendale where my sister lives. We went for a long walk in the countryside, through the pissing rain because that suits the landscape.

It's a landscape of sodden moors, old lead mines, flues and chimneys. There are stone walls, fences, and sheep. And then you come off the moor and go into the woodlands and there are pheasants, partridges and grouse; millions of them.

There are tubs of feed stuck at intervals in this private land, feed that keeps the birds fat as well as stupid, to slow them down enough so that pissed up  city boys in landrovers, or country boys in landrovers, can outwit them with a Purdey, a game dog, and a full-house of beaters.

History is written beneath the land throuigh these mines, through this ownership, through where you are allowed to roam and where you are not. There are divided loyalties, ancient grudges, and diverting claims over this land. You can feel it.

It's feudal country and all around you can see weird marks of this feudalism that run full intoWicker Man (without the fun bits) territory; shot crows hung up to on tree branches, rows of moles strung along fences (go to the bottom for more on catching moles), scores of ferrets heaped in bloody piles.

It points to a different idea of the English landscape than that we are accustomed to. It's bloody, and brutal and you're not quite sure who's being threatened by lines of dead crows and moles. Is it to warn off the moles and crows, or just a reminder to dumb city folk like myself exactly who owns the land.

And who owns the land , and how they own the land is the thing. My friend Deborah Parkin lives here  and has had convoys of 20 land rovers skimming along her road with Prince William waving as they passed. That's a convoy that is burdened with so many assumptions.  Or here's a map showing pheasant densities in England, along with details of who owns what and the environmental costs and contradictions of gamebird farming. And it's all very complicated, right from the question of whether a pheasant is livestock or wildlife (it depends on if you want a tax break or if you want to shoot it. Even law is written for some people's convenience).

So that was where I spent my weekend and then I headed back south and stopped off at services and came back to earth with a a bucket of  man-breast chicken. From one England to another, or are they two sides of the same thing and how do they connect and what does it all mean?

I don't know. But J.B. Priestly wrote a book about England in 1934 called English Journey.

J.B. Priestley’s English Journey is a portrait of England in crisis, a unique document made at the point in history when the prosperity of the Victorian age which had been propelled through the second decade of the Twentieth Century by a war economy, tumbled into the abyss of worldwide economic depression.

Political extremism stalked the south while mass unemployment and the grim desolation of boarded up factories and silent shipyards haunted England’s northern regions.

Priestley’s account of a nation in decline was to influence political thought in Britain for decades and inspire photographers as important as Bill Brandt and Humphrey Spender to venture to the unfashionable north to capture on film the industrial landscapes and the lives of the working people.

Priestley was asking the kind of questions that would still be relevant now. And John Angerson has asked those questions again in his book English Journey.

This is a book where Angerson follows in the footsteps of Priestley and finds his own answers to English identity.

Angerson's England is not a rural-urban polarity, it's not north v south, or rich v poor, it's mixed, it's confused, it's a hotchpotch of denuded semi-industrial landscapes that appear in a really beautifully designed book (and isn't it great to see something with design that doesn't look like it was learnt on a youtube  video) that mirrors but diverges from the original.


The pictures are made on a five four Wista, and are then pasted into the book as glossy prints of a size corresponding to the original negatives more or less, and flipped 90 degrees so you need to turn the book to look at them. You have to work a bit to see them in other words. I'm not quite sure why they are printed like this, but it works.

These are quiet pictures, quite flat in their content, but they have a power that goes beyond the surface of the image. There are pictures of docks, hotel chains, American football, a KFC franchise. Liverpool F.C.'s pitch gets a look in - we see only the turf and halfway line. There are images of war, of migration, of Britain's fading glory, of industrial sites repurposed as retail parks or parcel delivery warehouses.


There are migrant workers, wannabe models, call centre workers, and the Adelphi hotel in LIverpool, where passengers for the Titanic stayed before its journey to the bottom of the sea.


Each image is accompanied by a short bit of text that is laconic and cuts to a deadpan chase. These texts add to the images and create a momentum as the book progresses. It's a momentum of questioning and doubt about what it means to be English. Angerson doesn't really give us any answers, but instead takes us on a journey that questions Priestley, himself, and all the assumptions we have about Englishness.

It's direct and it's hard and it goes to places, very quietly, that so few books of English photography do. There's no reliance on the great image, or a well-worn nostalgia, you don't feel like you are looking at something either pre-conceived or from the past. It's contemporary in the extreme, it's unforgiving, and it's beautifully printed and designed.

But you can buy it and see more images here with a selection of 20 different covers .

Oh and if you're interested in mole catchers, there's a whole nother world out there....

Mole catchers.

'On a blustery Sunday morning, I met Rob Atkinson near his home in Ludlow. Atkinson is the former chief scientist for the RSPCA and author of the natural history book The Mole. Although he corresponded with Nicholls while at the RSPCA and has supported research on mole traps, he came to realise that they had different goals. For Atkinson, it wasn’t enough to find nicer ways to kill moles – he didn’t want them to be killed at all.

Atkinson is a soft-spoken, thoughtful man who has wavy grey hair and a downy white beard, and I couldn’t imagine him harming a single creature. He admitted to me, however, that he was once tasked with clearing moles out of his parents’ garden. He still remembers the excitement he felt when he would see a sprung trap. But, he added, “even, then, there was this sadness”. The landscape, once dynamic and alive, soon grew still. The rain washed over the molehills and they gradually flattened out. “You’ve done what you intended to do, but there’s a feeling that something is gone that was once here,” he said. Moles are in no danger of becoming extinct, but they are a reminder of Britain’s ancient natural history. Unlike other species, such as the grey squirrel, which were introduced by humans in recent centuries, the resident mole has lived in Britain for more than 350,000 years.

In the late 1980s, Atkinson studied the lives of moles while working on his master’s degree at the University of Oxford. He interviewed farmers about their impact, and tracked the movements of moles in the field. He came to the conclusion that mole catching was, for the most part, useless – a practice that should have died out years ago. In fact, scientists believe that moles benefit vegetable crops by turning the soil and eating pests.

Thursday, 17 October 2019

Carmelo Stompo and Kindness in Photography

 all pictures copyright Carmelo Stompo

I interviewed Max Pinckers the other week. We were talking about originality in photography, apps and the idea that everything has already been photographed, it's already been done. We talked about the idea of the good photo, and what that even means.

The idea of a 'good' photo is insidious. Most 'good' photos are not very interesting or original or even good. And then people start trying to make deliberately 'bad' pictures to be creative, original and break out of the 'good' photo mode. They make them blurred, or grainy, or off kilter, or burnt out. And then the bad pictures become the 'good' pictures and we're back where we started because who wants to see another set of overexposed, or purple, or blurry pictures.

There are good good faces, good backdrops, good people to photograph, good tonal ranges, good materials, good themes. Everything fits into a pre-ordered template - but as soon as something becomes 'good' it becomes a bit of a cliche right. Just go to Paris Photo or Photo-London and you can see that, you can see where people are making work that fits into something that fits the market, that ticks the critical boxes. It's soul destroying.

And then there are good photobooks. You see them, they have nice paper, nice design, nice covers, nice everything. And they are so good that maybe that goodness is just a mask that shields the fact that they might be not that good. There's the idea that what makes them good has become a bit of a trope and that we're all being blinded by tropes. Some of my favourite books are made by Mack, APE, Akina, RPS, Ceiba, Eriskay etc etc, but sometimes the books are so good I don't know if they are good anymore.

The same thing applies with critical ideas. There are the right ideas and the right themes, and there are smart people who  work with those to make work that fits into particularly critical niches (the really smart people just make interesting work that critical ideas apply to).

I've been looking at some great books on migration recently but I wonder if the rhetoric that applies to them isn't a bit rehashed sometimes, isn't said because that is what you are supposed to say. It's defensive theory to block off criticism that dehumanises and objectifies. Perhaps ideas that restaging and collaboration, and giving people cameras, that scratching and painting and writing, going all the way back to Wendy Ewald and beyond, aren't just a bit tired. Is it just something we say to make ourselves feel less guilty or does it actually mean something. i don't know.

Or is giving somebody a camera or asking them to draw on their pictures or make a collage aren't the most patronising and colonial thing ever., more concerned with the photographer as moral hero than with anything else. Or perhaps the whole calvinist tone of so much of this theory shares more with a colonial era vicar ministering to his flock and lecturing them on the evils of this or that. It shuts out so much, and can be joyless in a way that belongs to a particular geographic and economic privilege. It's like watching what I imagine a Church of England sermon would be on a small British colonised island (oh, and there is theory that thinks the same thing - the greatest legacy of British colonialism is its shitty, condescending moralising voice)

But at the same time, why not, what the heck, talk about broad brushstroke generalisation! As long as it's fun and it's nice and you're not claiming to much. But if you're claiming too much, I don't think so.

Anyway, this is a preamble to Carmelo Stompo's book, Never Stop. It's a book abour Arouna, a Senegalese migrant who Carmelo ran into in his hometown of Catania, Sicily. It doesn't claim too much, and it's kind.

I saw the work at a workshop I ran there and it was great, a mix of images that Carmelo spoke of with great kindness and affection towards Arouna. It told the stories of Arouna's journey from Senegal, his arrival in Catania, and the limbo he found himself in. It's a story of the multiple near deaths he experienced along the way, adn the one he is living through in limbo in Catania.

And within that limbo, the one consolation for Arouna is the people he met along the way, the people he is surviving with, and Carmelo himself. The pictures are great, the story goes beyond the trope of the journey (although I think the story is still continuing, it's just beginning), and Carmelo published the book to raise some funds to rent a flat for Arouna in Catania.

The problem with Carmelo  Never Stop is there isn't really a problem (aside from the text which helps tell the story is almost impossible to read and could be used to much stronger effect). It's a book of kindness because Carmelo is a very kind man, it's a book of hope, because he's an optimistic man It's a beautiful book and it's human. It tells the story of Arouna, the Senegalese boy who ended up in Catania, Sicily, Stompo's hometown. Stompo befriended him, hung out with him, ate with him, helped him find papers and shelter. He's still helping him find shelter. That's part of what the book is about.

He photographed his whole story in fictionalise form - his departure from Senegal and Gambia - his journey across the desert, his arrival in Libya, his escape from Libya, his journey across the sea, and his arrival into the limbo of Catania.

It's a story where Arouna came close to death four times - in the desert, in the badlands of Libya, in the Mediterranean, and perhaps a living death in Catania. And the pictures are great.

But it doesn't fit the theoretical migrant project mode, because that's not how it was made or what it was made for and that's not who Carmelo is. It's an honest book then that doesn't tick theoretical boxes with a nod to collaboration and consent (even though that is exactly how it was made), even if most of these theoretical constructs are arbitrary and contingent. Carmelo helps Arouna, and he does, and that's in there, he's kind to Arouna and that's in there, and photographs him through images that are cinematic ni quality.

And I love that. And I look forward to the ongoing story of Arouna, and how he survives in Catania and beyond, and the pressures of living in Catania and beyond, and if he can ever make a life for himself in Catania and beyond. Because in the story so far, Stompo has humanised and visualised a journey, a brutality, and the quagmire of asylum in images and words.

Buy Never Stop here.

Friday, 11 October 2019

Colour:It's all so real

My German Family Album in colour via my favourite new app.

It's  great but terrible at the same.

All the cliches of time, colour, and memory apply but exactly how and why?

The best think  is they get colourised in a desaturated kind of way, which brings with it it's own expectations.

It's  all about making pictures we have seen before. And I've seen them before, so l is well and good, except the parts that are not.

It's  so real!

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

Love conquers all. And that is the problem.

The Second Shift by Clare Gallagher is a book about 'the invisible domestic labour of housework and childcare carried out by women on top of their paid employment. It is physical, mental and emotional labour which demands effort, skill, and time but is unpaid, unaccounted for, unequally  distributed and largely unrecognised.'

It's a homage to the domestic, with small details coming out that flicker between the quiet moments of the small drudgeries of everyday life and the love for one's child that is expressed through those domestic labours. The two aren't separate and even the small comforts of cutting a child's hair or comforting them on your lap come with an afterlife of fatigue, mess, and more labour. It's a vicious circle where one cannot be separated from the other, where the costs of love, affection and caring are a myriad sources of unpaid, and unrecognised labours.

It's a great subject, one which has been present since, ooh, however long you care to imagine, and is expressed in brilliant domestic works by loads of people including Jo Spence, half of the feminist avant-garde exhibition from a few years back, and the American artist whose name escapes me who had an exhibition at the Arnolfini a few years ago on maintenance art - that's art that you can do while you're clearing up the house basically. Google it, you'll find it, I've decided that it's more fun to try to describe stuff I don't remember rather than googling everything.

It's a quiet book with images that resonate. The mess looks like a mess, it feels like a mess, it lies there inert waiting to be cleaned. And it's very likely that Gallagher is the one who will be doing the cleaning.

There's text in there, statements that pinpoint the mindsets that create and uphold this labour by women, this mental load of motherhood (I'm running a series of images on Instagram). Here's a little example from de Beauvoir and Sartre who manage to crystallise the dilemma perfectly.

And you can bet your bottom sou that Sartre left the toilet seat up, probably pissed up against the wall, and flicked ash all over the floor and didn't give a shit. But then nor did Simone I guess. But then maybe she did, I don't know. I could look for that - google Sartre and messy fucker and de Beauvoir and housework and see where it takes me, but mmm, that's just like reaffirming the problem in digital form. And sometimes it's more fun to imagine.

... Anyway this is what they said.

‘Few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework, with its endless repetition. The clean becomes soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day.’                                                                                            
Simone de Beauvoir

I understand the snare of the slimy: it is a fluidity which holds me and which compromises me; I cannot slide on this slime, all its suction cups hold me back; it cannot slide over me, it clings to me like a leech.’
Jean-Paul Sartre

It's a thoughtful book, a book with a soul and with a little tinge of anger and frustration that is kept mostly under wraps. Because love conquers all. And that, essentially, is the problem..

You can buy it here maybe?

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

Faces, Faces Everywhere

Welcome back, slightly late, to the Blog. 

I stumbled across these images on Lightroom Mobile earlier this week. They automatically sort the images you have into categories through some kind of facial/tonal/profiling recognition algorithm. 

So above we have my aunt, then Juliana Beasley's brilliant Lapdancer polaroids, a Cranach portrait, Nicolo Degorgis, my daughter, and so on. And the feature isn't even turned on, it just does it automatically for me, bless. 

So there you have it, images generated from some strange coalescence of archive, analog, imaging, algorithms and social media.  I rather love it, with the little heads at the top and then the portraits below. I want to embrace it because it looks nice. Which is so superficial it isn't true, but then that's photography all over.

A short while ago I was reading an article about smartphone images and the way in which their algorithms merge images. It was an experiment where the same image was repeatedly rephotographed by a phone and gradually it changed from the original image into a blank single coloured plane. 

It's an experiment that exemplifies alot of social media, of how it works and how the liking, the metrics, the algorithms move images away from being entities in their own right into a kind of flow (Aiden White wrote about this - and thank you Max Pinckers for pointing me in that direction) that changes both our attention to images and how we make and understand them. 

The dilemma, which is what Max Pincker's work is all about, is how can we recognise that flattening,liquifying  affect so that we can escape it. And we don't really know if we can do that. How can you make images that go beyond stereotype, cliche and trope when that is basically what photography is all about. And what happens when you do? Do you simply make a new trope? Is a contemporary art trope of holding a boulder or having a blue dot on an image, or sticking a few bits of string between images, or having somebody pose awkwardly in a studio any better than a photojournalistic trope of a crying mourner at a funeral, or a tourist trope of a lovely, decorative window, or,or...?

What exactly is the point of it all?

I don't know, but it's what I'm writing about for Witness. I think I still won't know at the end. 

And Lightroom Mobile? The basic problem now is I want to photograph things, or import images, so they get sorted by Lightroom Mobile and I have a nice, new collection of recognised (they're not recognised by the way even though that's what we say) faces.